As IIoT grows, ditch your battery-powered sensors

It seems like almost every article we write lately touches on the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), even our recent workforce development series was heavily focused on the topic. It’s changing everything. But as we further implement IIoT devices, it might be good to keep in mind where this technology is going and what future potential might be.

Doing just that, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) noticed that many of the IIoT-enabled sensors that are being deployed throughout industry are battery powered. That means as more devices are put online, more batteries are needed to power them and those batteries will need to be charged or replaced.

Considering long-term goals and the need for IIoT devices that can withstand the test of time, the researchers designed photovoltaic-powered sensors with the potential to transmit data for years, according to an MIT News article, “Photovoltaic-powered sensors for the ‘internet of things’” by Rob Matheson.  

The design features thin-film perovskite cells mounted to an integrated circuit on radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags that are built on plastic substrate, Matheson explains. Both the perovskite cells and the RFID tags are known to be low-cost, making them ideal materials for self-powered sensors.

“In the future, there could be billions of sensors all around us. With that scale, you’ll need a lot of batteries that you’ll have to recharge constantly. But what if you could self-power them using the ambient light? You could deploy them and forget them for months or years at a time. This work is basically building enhanced RFID tags using energy harvesters for a range of applications,” said Sai Nithin Kantareddy, PhD student in the MIT Auto-ID Laboratory, in the article.

The perovskite cells can provide power with ambient light indoors and outdoors, although solar power is ideal as it provides a power boost that “enables greater data-transmission distances and the ability to integrate multiple sensors onto a single RFID tag,” Matheson explains.

In fact, he notes in the article that traditional solar cells aren’t ideal for these applications. In addition to their high cost, traditional solar cells aren’t efficient at generating power indoors and aren’t very flexible.

The research was published in the journals Advanced Functional Materials and IEEE Sensors. The prototype sensors monitor temperature, but the researchers plan to develop humidity, pressure, vibration and pollution sensors as well.

“The perovskite materials we use have incredible potential as effective indoor-light harvesters. Our next step is to integrate these same technologies using printed electronics methods, potentially enabling extremely low-cost manufacturing of wireless sensors,” Department of Mechanical Engineering postdoc Ian Mathews said in the article.